LIVE! NIT: Boise State
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois pulled away late in the second half, booking its spot in the NIT quarterfinals with a 71-56 victory against Boise State. Tracy Abrams led the Illini with 18 points, and Malcolm Hill added 13 while passing Dee Brown for third all-time on Illinois' career scoring list.
Be sure to check out Tuesday's News-Gazette and right here at IlliniHQ.com for more on the Illinois victory and the official introduction of new Illini coach Brad Underwood.
Illinois 53, Boise State 50 — 8:56 left in 1st
Have the Illini played a great game on the offensive end? No. But Illinois might be finally doing enough to get the crowd interested again. That's important. Boise State has managed to answer every Illinois — big or small — and that has quieted the State Farm Center crowd each time as well. That's Illinois' advantage in what is probably closer to a 50-50 game than the 8 1/2 point favorite Illinois was before tonight's game started.
Boise State 41, Illinois 40 — 15:42 left in 1st
Boise State is shooting better than Illinois in every way (total field goals, three-pointers and free throws) but the Illini only trail by one. That's encouraging if you're an Illinois fan.
Here's why it's happening like that ...
— Illinois is winning the rebounding battle and particularly so on the offensive end. The Illini haven't turned that into an advantage in second chance points, though.
— Illinois has fewer turnovers. Only six so far at this point.
— The Illinois bench is also outscoring Boise State's bench.
Boise State 34, Illinois 33 — Halftime
At one point in the first half, Illinois led by eight points. That point was with 3:24 left before halftime. Then the Illini didn't score again as they simultaneously forgot that Boise State's Nick Duncan can and will knock down three-pointers if left open. The Broncos' veteran Australian has hit four of them for his 12 points. Chandler Hutchison also has 12 points for Boise State, mixing in a three-pointer while mainly attacking the rim.
Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands have six points apiece to lead a balanced Illinois offense through one half. Black would have quite a few more points if he hadn't missed a couple layups. The redshirt sophomore forward leads Illinois with eight rebounds, including four on the offensive end.
Malcolm Hill has five points for the Illini but was fairly passive to start the game. This could be another game where Hill needs to decide to take over.
New coach Brad Underwood and his family were introduced again at halftime. The two youngest — Katie and Ashley — were already rocking some Illini gear. I had an opportunity to speak with both of them, their older brother Tyler and mom Susan today. Really nice family. Look for more on the Underwoods in The News-Gazette in the coming days.
Illinois 15, Boise State 8 — 11:38 left in 1st
Illinois is shooting 46 percent and holding Boise State to 38 percent so far in the first half. Both of those things are positives toward an Illini victory. But there just doesn't seem to be quite the energy yet — from the players or fans — as there was last week against Valparaiso.
Offensively, Illinois is lacking the spark it had against the Crusaders. The Illini played a little more uptempo and with a purpose on the offensive end. Not seeing that as of yet.
Illinois 6, Boise State 6 — 15:35 left in 1st
A few thoughts from the first 4 1/2 minutes ...
Illinois is not doing much offensively against Boise State's 2-3 zone. Had Tracy Abrams not had two three-pointers make it halfway down before rimming back out, that might elicit a different feeling, but the Illini aren't getting much traction toward the rim. Makes me wonder what Brad Underwood is thinking.
Boise State, meanwhile, has done all its scoring attacking the basket. Chandler Hutchison has finished two of those drives. Illinois can't let him pick up momentum like that. Utah found that out at its own peril last week when Hutchison dropped 34 points on the Utes.
Illinois vs. Boise State — 8 p.m., ESPN
Illini interim coach Jamall Walker was afforded a little more time to scout Boise State and prep for the Broncos than he had for last week's game against Valparaiso in the wake of John Groce being fired and his elevation from assistant coach to the man in charge.
His "scouting report" as it were on Boise State is pretty straighforward.
"They have great spacing on offense," Walker said. "I love how they play – four out and one in. They’re setting ball screens. they play fast. It’s a fun way in which they play."
Illinois vs. Boise State — 8 p.m., ESPN
Illinois will play without redshirt sophomore forward Michael Finke for the second straight game, and the stretch 4 will miss any other games this season with a left foot injury if the Illini keep winning.
That, of course, changes the rotation. Mike Thorne Jr. played for the first time in a month-plus last week against Valparaiso with Finke out. That won't necessarily be the case tonight against Boise State.
"We’ll got by committee and we’ll go by feel as a staff," Illinois interim coach Jamall Walker said. "It really depends on matchups. I have a feeling of who we’ll want to go with. They’re a little bit smaller, so that will kind of give you a clue about what we’re thinking about doing there.
"At the same time, you’ve got to go with what you think is best for your team. Sometimes you’ve got to adjust to (them), but they also have to adjust to us. I watched Purdue the other night and I was shocked he had Haas and Swanigan in the game at the same time. You know what? It worked for them because that’s what they’ve been doing all year."
Illinois vs. Boise State — 8 p.m., ESPN
Illinois beat Valparaiso in the first round of the NIT last Tuesday and then didn't find out when it would play Boise State until the next late afternoon. That left Illini interim coach Jamall Walker planning for any eventuality.
"I didn’t know if we were going to play Friday and didn’t know if we were going to play Saturday," Walker said. "I’ve been watching (the Broncos) for a while in small doses while at the same time trying to balance out the guys and balance out my family."
With nearly a week in between games, Walker gave the Illini some time off amidst having their coach fired three days before they started postseason play.
"I wanted them to kind of get back and get away from it all," Walker said. "That was a lot of emotion. ... Kids are resilient. They don’t hold on to stuff as much as us adults do."
Two trips to State Farm Center in one day for wildly different reasons. That's Illinois basketball at the moment. Part of my afternoon was spent at the home of Illini basketball as new coach Brad Underwood was officially introduced. Now I'm back as Illinois — still led by interim coach Jamall Walker — gets set to face Boise State in the second round of the NIT.
Illinois basketball, and in conjunction the fan base and myself, is existing in two planes of basketball life simultaneously. The present and future simply brushed past each other today.
— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) March 20, 2017
But the focus at the moment is on Boise State, with tipoff in an hour.
The Broncos (20-11) advanced to the second round after pulling off a come-from-behind victory against Utah. Leading scorer Chandler Hutchison doubled his season average against the Utes, pouring in a game-high 34. Illinois (19-14) blew out Valparaiso by 25 getting a big game from Malcolm Hill. The fact the Crusaders were without Alec Peters didn't help their cause.
Now, the two teams meet for just the second time ever. And just two days after Illinois hired its new coach, which came a week after Josh Whitman fired John Groce. The word "whirlwind" has been thrown out a lot — by Underwood, Whitman and even Walker. That's not off base.
Underwood's offense appealing to Finke, Illini
CHAMPAIGN — Michael Finke said he watched the occasional NCAA tournament game in the past week with the idea one of the coaches leading a team on TV might be his next coach at Illinois. As those games played out, he tried to imagine himself in those systems.
Friday morning's Michigan-Oklahoma State first-round game, Finke admitted, wasn't one of those games. But just more than 24 hours later, Oklahoma State's Brad Underwood was announced as the 18th coach in Illinois program history.
"I wasn't watching it as, 'He could be our coach,' but now looking back at it they looked like a lot of fun," Finke said of Underwood's Cowboys. "We've all been waiting, anticipating, who we were going to get it, and I think it's kind of caught everyone off guard. We didn't really know much about him, but watching Oklahoma State with Jawun Evans and their whole offense, they were a lot of fun to watch this year.
"We were talking about how free they play and just how quick they go. A lot of us are really thrilled to play in that system and are looking forward to getting going with him."
Underwood met with the Illinois players before Sunday afternoon's practice — the final prep for Monday's 8 p.m. second-round NIT matchup with Boise State.
His initial message to his new team?
"The biggest thing I took from it is we're going to play really hard, but we're going to have a lot of fun," Finke said. "That was something he kept saying, and he kept saying how he was thrilled to be here."
— Illini Basketball (@IlliniMBB) March 20, 2017
The LIVE! Report will be updated as much as possible throughout the game, but — fair warning — the 8 p.m. tip will make updates infrequent as the game progresses and deadline approaches.